By Kay Etheredge

I found the Western Union Telegram tucked away in a manila envelope.  It was dated January 9, 1929, sent from Liberty, TN to Cordova, Alabama.  The message was simple.


Winnie’s appendix had ruptured and her condition was dire.  The average salary in 1929 was  .50 per hour and a long distance phone call for one minute was $4.65.  There were no cell phones and a Western Union Telegram was the closest precursor to text messaging that existed and it was .65 per 10 words to send. It was expensive and concise.   Winnie’s cousin was the sender of the telegram and the recipient was her brother in law, Dan Gilbert.

The men who come in the doors of Brother Bryan Mission are in their own dire conditions.  When they come they generally have burned bridges with family, destroyed marriage relationships, and lost ties with their own children.  They have lost jobs, homes, standing in the community, and all hope.  It could easily be said in a telegram or text message, “’little chance for them”.  The odds are heavily stacked against them.

They come in broken and seeking and they are met with support from the other men, encouragement from staff, teaching from scripture, and time to heal…to hit the reset button on life.  They are met with choices, many for the first time in years.  Some choose to leave.  Many others choose to stay.  They develop friendships, acquire nicknames, receive counseling, employment training, good food and a safe environment where they can heal.  They have warm beds and a chance to start over.

People are skeptical and there are those who doubt that a permanent change is possible.  We are asked often, “Why do you waste your time?”  or “Don’t you ever get tired of being used?”  And there are times when the phone rings in the middle of the night and we hear a casual but inebriated “Hey, what ‘cha doin’?” from a man who had once worked hard for sobriety and the rug is pulled out from under us.  We have driven with our children on Thanksgiving through seedy trailer parks looking for a man we are hoping to take back to safety.  Our children, now grown, have been visitors in at least two jails in the Birmingham area with us as we went to try and bring hope to someone who stumbled and fell yet again.  We took a man into our home for three years and loved him like a son.  We gave him piano lessons and discipline, a factory refurbished game system for Christmas because it’s all we could afford and in the end, he chose to leave over a woman and curfews and he grew tired of our “rules”.  And every staff member at Brother Bryan Mission could tell similar stories I’m sure because it is not a place people work to climb corporate ladders.    It is about loving people and it’s about real ministry and seeing deep into the souls of others and living out sacrifice like a doxology.

There often is “little chance” but there is a chance.  There is hope.  There is Light in this world in the form of Jesus and as we enter into the Advent season we can stop and regroup and remember that it was a very dark world that He stepped into as well.  So maybe there is “little chance” for the men at Brother Bryan Mission in the eyes of some.  We believe there is great hope.  Always hope…no person is beyond it.

Penicillin was discovered in 1929 but it was new and expensive and experimental and it was just too early to help Winnie.  Antibiotics would not become widely used in the US until the 1940s, so her story contained little hope because of the era in which she lived.  Today a ruptured appendix could be a life threatening situation;  in 1929 it was grave.

We are all somewhere in a story and only God knows where.  He writes the story and when things seem to make no sense it may be that we are simply in the middle.   The next chapter is about to begin.  There are men at Brother Bryan Mission who may wonder where they are in their story.  They are living in a men’s shelter at the holidays when they want to be with family.  They wonder if they will ever be able to finally be free from the chains of drug and alcohol addiction.  Will God be able to use them to bring glory to His kingdom?  We believe the answer is always yes.

Winnie survived her ruptured appendix in Tennessee in 1929 without the benefit of antibiotics.  She “defied the odds” and went on to live 5 days shy of 46 more years.    I know this story because in time I had the wonderful privilege of being written into it.   Winnie was my grandmother.